Alessandro Savelli founded Pasta Evangelists, a home delivery service for fresh Italian pasta dishes in 2017, because he felt that pasta in Britain was still relegated to hard, mass-produced spaghetti on supermarket shelves and jars of pesto.
Based in Hoxton, East London, Pasta Evangelists employs around 25 full-time staff in its office and another 60 or so in production, preparing and packaging the pasta boxes. The start-up has an outlet in the world-famous Harrods food hall and a concession in M&S in Southampton.
Since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Pasta Evangelists has seen demand for its home-cook pasta boxes more than quadruple and currently the business is shipping out around 12,000 orders a week.
It’s a rainy Monday morning in late February. I’m at home feeding my son Daniele his breakfast when my phone rings.
“You need to think about increasing your production – fast,” says the voice on the line.
It is my father calling from his mountain village in the Aosta Valley. Italy has just seen its first major surge in coronavirus cases and the Italian government has declared much of the north a “red zone”, locking down 11 towns across Lombardy and Veneto. Only a few hours’ drive from the epicentre of the outbreak, and therefore forced into complete confinement, my father, a traditional Italian who typically goes to the market daily and cooks always from scratch, is experiencing a strange new normal.
“The markets are empty; pasta is like gold dust right now. I’m worried about how I am going to get my food in”, he tells me in Italian. “Your business is going to change. You will have an opportunity to really serve people in a very essential way.”
The level of surreality he described still seems very remote to me here in the UK, where pubs are full of life and people going to work as usual. But I take him seriously and begin to implement precautionary measures to protect my family and my team, such as wearing protective gear (masks and gloves) on public transport and advising my team to cut all external meetings.
As Italy shuts its schools, bars and restaurants, I send my office team to work from home. It is still a couple of weeks before the UK government will announce a lockdown, but, hearing the horrors unfolding around my family in my home country, I know we need to protect the engine of our business – our production line and our staff – at all costs.
We totally restructure our packing operations. Ordering in as many masks as we can, we introduce stringent new rules: staying two metres away from each other, measuring everyone’s temperature before they come in, dividing into teams so that, should someone get ill, we can still move the business forward. We commit to providing financial support for any team member who might experience symptoms of Covid-19 and need to self-isolate.
‘We decide to launch a partnership with Age UK to support the elderly’
It is the weekend, and I receive a message from my co-founder sharing a picture of an older gentleman standing amidst stripped supermarket shelves that has gone viral on Twitter. I really feel now that our role has shifted: there are vulnerable people that are struggling to access groceries and we have a duty to get food to them. We decide to launch a partnership with Age UK to support the elderly; plans for our ‘Pasta Care Package’ are put in place, and we launch the following day.
16th March-22nd March
This week, Boris Johnson begins his daily press briefings. Monday, don’t go to bars and restaurants; Tuesday, work from home where possible; Wednesday, the schools are going to close. The orders start to rain in. We are tripling sales by the day, some days quadrupling. Customers are asking for 10, 12, 15 portions per week rather than per year. One day this week, we had someone buy 20 portions of pasta at once – we couldn’t believe it. Our drivers are delivering thousands of boxes per day – literally tons of pasta.
The sudden increase in demand is not without its challenges. The whole Pasta Evangelists team is working in fifth gear. On average I am receiving around 500 phone calls and emails per day. The pace is tough – there were some days this week when I thought the kitchen might break. Our production is now a 24-hour operation; my co-founder and I are regularly packing boxes into the night – just like the early days. The team is waking up to put on whichever hat is needed that day – whether it is our marketers working in customer service or our sfogline (pasta chefs) switching from our Harrods pasta counter to our Deliveroo kitchen.
23rd March-5th April
As the lockdown continues, we are trying to do our bit to raise spirits across the nation – be that by a pasta delivery or with online experiences. We start our free lunchtime pasta cookalongs, to provide a “lifeline” of sorts for busy parents looking to occupy their kids since the schools closed last week, and just to provide some relief to anyone struggling in isolation. Making pasta by hand is a really therapeutic, soothing exercise; our chef Roberta is doing an amazing job leading our masterclasses, and she is receiving some really heartwarming messages from our customers, explaining how the simple act of making pasta is helping them to “forget about this awful situation”.
We also change our communications strategy, reducing the number of emails we send and focusing our updates on community news, such as updating our customers on how much they are helping us raise for Age UK. In these dark times, it’s important to keep sharing positive snippets of “good news” where you can. We end the month having raised over £15,000 for Age UK with the help of our customers.
With the hospitality industry on its knees around us, we brainstorm ideas to support other small food businesses which have been acutely affected by Covid-19. With this in mind, we map out a campaign of chef-collaborations under the hashtag #RallyForRestaurants, where 20 per cent of profits from each dish will be donated to the restaurant involved. We launch the initiative with a regional Sicily-inspired recipe collaboration with Ben Tish of Norma London, one of our favourite chefs who has, sadly, been forced to temporarily shut his doors during Covid-19.
There is a real sense of community spirit in the restaurant industry, with so many small businesses hit hard but pivoting quickly, and doing great work to serve other communities hit by this crisis.
The government announces a slight easing of lockdown rules. There is talk of our Food Hall in Harrods reopening so, for the first time in two months, we can begin making realistic short-term plans for our offline channels again.
However, looking beyond the pandemic, the future is still very uncertain, and long-term strategising can only really be an afterthought at the moment. But we have a duty to our staff – and to our evangelists – to keep carving ways to keep our service going. “Don’t stop trying,” my father’s voice echoes in my head. And, for now at least, there is still plenty of pasta to go around.
Alessandro Savelli is founder & CEO of Pasta Evangelists
Coronavirus small business diary – Stitch & Story CEO Jennifer Lam